Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The Stables, Rathmichael, Co Wicklow

In the 1890s, road rage was a topic that dominated dinner parties across Ireland. You can’t move for traffic, the people cried. The cause was blatantly obvious; too many people had gone and got themselves a horse and carriage. These new-fangled coaches just weren’t as reliable as the old ones. They kept breaking down. Or else some little thugs would slip out from an alley and whisk your wheels off while you weren’t looking. And where are you without wheels? Never mind the stench from all those horses pooping and piddling away all day long. Trying times indeed.

For the Rialls of Old Conna, the congestion must have been most galling. They had been traveling the roads of Ireland by coach since the 17th century when Phineas Riall established the family fortune as a banker in Tipperary. As such, when they succeeded to Old Conna House in Rathmichael, Co. Dublin, in the 19th century, they must have cast a keen eye over the granite stables built by Welsh labourers in the 1730s.

In about 1860, Mrs Riall decided a change of view was in order. The original house at Old Conna was felled and a magnificent new Tudor Gothic mansion built in its place. The architect employed was Sir Charles Lanyon, a man whose legacy sprawls across Ireland from the Custom House in Belfast to the Campanile at Trinity College Dublin.

The cut-stone rubble from the old house was carted down to the stables which was duly extended to cater to increasing equestrian demands – a farrier’s forge, a tack room and such like.

During the 20th century, the Rialls left Old Conna which, briefly owned by Count John McCormack, has been home to the Aravon Preparatory School since 1984. The stables and their Victorian auxiliaries were sold separately.

When the present owners first saw the Coach House, it was a roofless building with bare earth floors. Mel Gibson had used it as the lair for Robert the Bruce’s leprous father in ‘Braveheart’.

Fast forward to a hot summer’s day in 2008. Merging seamlessly into the original two-storey Welsh-built block is a new modernist extension, reminiscent of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The extension was designed by Neil Scott of Scott Tallon Walker with Forrest Hill Architects supervising the project.

A wall of narrow strips, containing over 80,000 hand-cut stones salvaged from old Docklands ballast, frames a dramatic curtain of glass windows and sliding doors. Through these glass doors is the kitchen, a fully integrated PlusModo Poggenpohl design by Jorge Pensi, supplied by Design House. Here the owners chop vegetables upon a sleek Royal Black granite worktop by Debros Marbleworks. The family either gather around this worktop on stools from Living of Bray or take a pew around a stunning 8-seater walnut table by Kluskens, supplied by Inside Out, Dun Laoghaire. For less formal occasions, they can light up the wood-burning stove and slump deep into a dark brown Giovanni Sforza leather sofa from European Living in the adjacent family room.

The interior is largely the work of Bobby Lardner of Raglan Lane Interiors (www.raglanlane.com). Soft and plush were the main buzzwords of her immense and successful brief. The walls throughout this sizeable home are bedecked with works by painters and sculptors closely associated with the Blue Leaf Gallery in Marino. In order not to distract from the art, the floors and walls are as discreet as possible . Hence the light beige Bottocino marble tiles from the Banagher Stone Centre running continuously over the ground floor (with more kitchen-friendly porcelain tiles in the new extension) and up the main stairs. Likewise, the calm mushroom and moleskin hued carpets supplied by from Maurice Walsh Carpets, Dun Laoghaire. Even the doorknobs, hinges and satin nickel LeGrand sockets have a refined sleekness.

Soft and plush was also the brief given to Yours Personally, the Dun Laoghaire based upholstery manufacturer responsible for most of the curtains and soft furnishing. Their creations abound across the house – the lilac armchairs at the top of the stairs, the supple grey sofas in the hall, the pure silk curtains in the dining room, the watered taffeta cotton curtains in the boys bedroom, the cheerful red Camengo Ephémère curtains in the girls bedroom, and the dramatic pink sofa in the master bedroom.

In the formal dining room, a magnificent oak table and a dozen chairs were refinished in Dark Oak with limed patina by Jennie Ryan Interiors, Sandycove. A specialist in decorative paint finishes, Jennie’s work is charmingly complimented by her father Noel’s reupholstering of the chairs in Crowson Palatina. The father and daughter collaboration is visible elsewhere in the house - a silver-paint finished console table in the hallway, a sleigh bed and lockers in a bedroom hand-painted in Farrow & Ball Warm Shadows with Antiqued Patina.

Another big player in the project were the Castleblayney joiners McKenna & Cairns. They created all the internal doors and skirting (finished with a dark walnut stain), the trellis radiator covers, the side-tables in the bedrooms, and an ambitious homework desk designed by Bobby to seat the owner’s three children. The wardrobes in the dressing rooms and children’s bedrooms are by Domino Designs of Bray.

Lighting was also of pivotal importance to maintain a suitable balance between art and reality. Again, Lardner employed a few key players here. For instance, Uttermost Lighting designed the floor lamps in the living room and the lamps in the family room (set on walnut cubes by Inside Out). Willie Duggan Lighting, Kilkenny, provided the discreet corridor wall lights and the handmade pendant Axo Light lights from the Clavius range (with chrome fittings and Tobacco silk thread lampshades) in the dining room. Hanging from the exposed beams directly above the stairwell is a Tipperary Crystal chandelier by Louise Kennedy. This is a nod to Bobby’s time working as retail manager at Louise Kennedy’s Merrion Square salon and later as design assistant on the Rathlinn Showhouses in Castleconnell. Other notable pieces include the bedroom bobble lights from Stillorgan Décor Lighting and a triptych of lampshades above the walnut kitchen table by Nostalgia Designs in Churchtown. At night, the master room is lit by recessed light strips discreetly hidden above the dressing table and windows.

The staircase is a particularly memorable space, a wide, sweeping movement, with a neat Helical curve on the underside. A flowing balustrade, stained antique gun metal, from the Pikeman Forge in Wexford, glides up to an open landing, lit by elliptical windows in the day and by the Kennedy chandelier at night. White-painted book shelves reinforce the impressions of space and light. To the right, a moleskin carpeted corridor leads down to the children’s wing and bathrooms. The latter are spacious, no nonsense affairs, fully equipped by Versatile Bathrooms in Navan with light floors, dark wood units, dark wall tiles from Tilestyle and electric under-floor heating.

Another impressive room is the super comfortable state of the art cinema by with seating from Objekt Design Space, set into the old barrel-vaulted cellar beneath. A hundred years ago, these cellars provided access to a stream diverted from the mountains which supplied water to the horses stabled above.

This is a house where the natural world is never far away. Indeed, the new extension catered to the very fact that the owners children were now older and always eager to play outdoors. The moment one enters through the thick mahogany paneled doors, the eye is immediately drawn through an archway to a bay window behind which bamboos grow. These bright bays are echoed down a lengthy corridor leading to the playroom and guest suite. French windows from the living room open onto a parterre garden and granite octagon with a weeping larch at its centre. The dining room opens out onto a balcony; the brackets came from Mountjoy Gaol by Sean Travers Salvage. Here outdoor breakfasts can be enjoyed in the morning sun. Between the dining room and the staircase, a series of arched windows at ground level and the elliptical windows above usher in light throughout the day.

In the master bedroom, the sense of freedom is enhanced by the magnificent view from a curtain of windows that open onto an outdoor seating area, scented with bay leafs. Sun beds point hopefully towards the hill and the elusive sun beyond. Verdant lawns and buoyant roses gleam through laurel and beech, occasional glimpses of Asian elephants on pillars , of supersize conical candles from France. From within the bedroom, everything is amplified by two large mirrors from Mimosa Interiors and Donaldson & Lyttle. The latter hangs just above the dressing table and is superbly angled so that, while combing or drying one’s hair, one can gaze up through the colourful garden to the azure slopes of Carrickgollogan mountain beyond. A perfect moment to ponder golden days when not everyone had a horse and cart.

This story appeared in the Autumn 2008 edition of The White Book.